Wednesday, April 13, 2011
April 13, 2011: What Would Change 2, “All-American”
[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
A few years ago, as informal research toward this book, I thought about documenting each time I heard or read someone unthinkingly or at least unanalytically use a phrase like “All-American” to mean a very particular kind of identity; within the first week of the project I had encountered at least a dozen such usages: from a radio DJ saying, in response to false rumors that pop star Kelly Clarkson was gay, “Kelly’s an All-American girl, she likes boys”; to a story about a local (white) professional athlete that described him as having “All-American good looks”; to many other, similarly innocuous but very telling occasions and usages. I gave up on keeping track, but not without having had confirmed my sense that virtually all of the time “All-American” means that particular, white/Anglo identity—and not, in nearly all cases, in an intended (much less a discriminatory) way, but just because that’s what the phrase and its ilk have come to mean.
As is the case with each of these changes, I think it would be some progress just to reverse the existing narratives—to describe Rihanna as “All-American,” to write about Albert Pujols’ “All-American good looks.” (And yes, both of those individuals have immigrated to the United States from other countries; that’s part of my point, but I’d happily substitute Harriet Tubman and Sitting Bull to get the ball rolling if that works better.) But as is my book’s most central goal, I would find it even more satisfying if “All-American” was especially reserved for the most complex, hybrid, mixed identities—for the Mariah Careys and Derek Jeters, the Barack Obamas and Aidan and Kyle Tsao Railtons. After all, with the removal of mixed-race as a separate category on the 2010 census (after it had been added for the first time in 2000), individuals with that element of identity aren’t able to check one box to self-identify with any accuracy—so let’s just call them the most All-American of us all. You see, Sarah Palin, “real Americans” aren’t red staters or blue staters—they’re purple.
Effect #3 tomorrow,